Structural Dysfunction: Strain and Release

Pages: 27-32
Year: 2011
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 39 – Nº 2

Volume: 39

A premise underlying structural bodywork may need updating because of the growth of many new release modalities within the Rolf Institute® of Structural Integration (SI) and elsewhere. It has long been held that structural bodyworkers primarily release fascial restrictions. But it is likely that muscles can play a key role in the generation and maintenance of physical restrictions. Thus the author has developed a hypothesis explaining how some of the new techniques might be affecting structure. Muscular response is maintained by nervous input, which has traditionally not been referenced as having a part in structural release. Because of this input, it is possible to effect release of restrictions using different levels of appropriate touch focused on muscles and their sensory stretch receptors. This may be as effective, or perhaps even more so, than touch focused mostly on connective tissue.




Dr. Rolf referred to ‘myofascial restrictions’ though her work was focused on the fasciae primarily. This approach is characterized by the use of strong and deep force aimed at releasing fascia, which is much less responsive and active than skeletal muscle. Unspoken was any reference to the role of muscles, although some techniques seemed based on the idea of releasing muscles by stimulating the Golgi tendon organs. Tendon organs, when stimulated, can cause an entire muscle to release. Olympic weight lifters train to override this feedback response in order to lift more weight, at risk to their joints. Putting a stretch on a muscle, as bodyworkers do, while simultaneously asking the person to contract the muscle, can presumably activate the tendon organs, stimulating muscular release. The link between the tendon organs and the contractile cells is, of course, the nerves.


If the muscles actually are found to be a major contributor of structure-disrupting restriction, then the focus of structural release may have to shift appropriately. Traditionally, Rolfing® SI has not referenced any role of the skeletal muscles and their innervation as contributing to structural problems or their solution. We also may need to re-reference our training. Inasmuch as they contribute to useful concepts for research and development, new ideas need to be investigated for their soundness, and if found to be fitting, then incorporated into our work. Old concepts may need to be re-evaluated.


For instance, the insistence that the body is a tensegrity structure,1 a premise that serves to buttress the fascia-only school of structural bodywork – because tensegrity works with no need for nervous input – needs to be re-examined for appropriateness and relevance to structural bodywork. To consider an organism as a tensegrity structure is to add living behavior to the original Fullerian concept – that tensegrity exists whenever a structure’s shape is maintained by a balance of discontinuous compressional struts and continuous tensional members such as wires. Of course if the struts separate the wires, then the tensional members are also somewhat discontinuous, and the compressional units are not entirely acting with compression but with tension, which is placed on their ends and is transmitted throughout. (When you consider suspension bridges, possible tensegrity structures, the compression members support the tensional members, which in turn lift the roadway. The roadway and cables compress the towers.)


When considering living organisms, we must take into account factors such as responsiveness/irritability (with or without reference to a nervous system, since many less complex and unicellular organisms lack a nervous system but are still responsive), as well as numerous biochemical events at all levels of an organism. Within and between cells there are many molecular events whose interactions are biochemical in nature, which some assert are affected by cellular tensional/compressional elements.2 Yet it is unclear which member of a physiological unit comprised of organelles and separate molecules is tensional and which is compressional. There are also electromagnetic and possibly quantum forces at play.3 Are we still speaking of tensegrity, a tension-compression balanced structure, or something quite different, a ‘unit’ without a set ‘structure,’ in continuous change, and possibly involving apparently non-tensegral quantum effects? (A consideration of quantum mechanics is beyond the scope of this article.)


In cells, the cytoskeleton appears to be in continuous change, and its effects on cellular biochemical events may go far beyond tensegrity as defined, even in light of the footnoted reference. The cytoskeleton appears to have both tensioning and compressing function, perhaps even simultaneously. It also plays a role in cellular chemistry and pathways by offering different loci for events to occur.


A living unit might, at the macro scale, be considered a partial tensegrity structure with the proviso that various tensions are generally neurally and biochemically maintained and continually altered. These biochemical processes are not analogous to the force of gravity on a macro-scale non-living tensegrity structure. At the scale of the cell, it is uncertain how to assess and compare simple tensional and compressional events with the other forces at play, such as electromagnetism, which means that it may be inappropriate to call the unit a tensegrity structure. In addition, the nervous and glandular systems are key factors in many macro-scale tensional events in an organism, and they too alter continually.


It may be more appropriate, or useful, for structural bodywork, to try to identify the tensegral portions of the body on the macro scale. In Fuller’s original 1961 article “Tensegrity,” this phrase occurs: “Recourse to this discontinuous-compression, continuous-tensioning structure was not obvious to man.”4 This is the clearest statement this author can find in the article, referring most simply to tensegrity. I have attempted to apply this statement to the body. Thus, places that maintain their shape when the mind is not directing them, or is not specifically focused upon them, might possibly be considered tensegral – i.e., exhibiting at least some ‘continuous tensioning.’ I add the caveat that these places that maintain their basic shapes do so with the shape being partially defined by the irregularly shaped and curved ‘compressional’ portions.


Consider the example of the bones of the foot, which are arranged mostly continuously with intervening soft tissue that is discontinuously altering its tensioning. Of course, bones are not merely compressional, but exhibit suppleness, flexibility, and tensioning, and are arranged continuously. Tensioning, whether continuous or discontinuous, confers mechanical and energetic advantages to an organism. The arches of the feet act with other structures to store and re-emit mechanical energy during locomotion – especially forefoot and midfoot running5 – with minimal muscular energy expenditure. The arms and legs seem too mobile to be considered tensegral. The feet and hands, pelvis, ribcage, and spine do exhibit a play of tension and compression, but in a pattern too complex to be easily called tensegral. Furthermore, the overall body continuously changes shape and tensioning, from continual neural input as we move both consciously and unconsciously, awake and asleep. And thus the tensioning is again not continuous overall.


It thus takes some work to affix the characteristic of ‘tensegrity’ to a living body. It seems to add little to our understanding, except perhaps metaphorically. Because Fuller didn’t give a precise definition of tensegrity, to refer to the body as a tensegrity structure is out of order. Everything written by others since his 1961 artricle is interpretive. Though Fuller seems to have made little or no reference to living organisms and their movement in his classic article, later definers of tensegrity have made their own additions and interpretations.6


It may be the case that structural bodyworkers focused mostly on fascialrelease techniques believe that by releasing fascia, the proposed tensional component of a tensegrity structure of the body, they alter the body’s tensional dynamics and thus the balance of the system. A more complex result ensues if the muscles and nervous system are included in the picture. Physical, structural release is then no longer a purely mechanical process of releasing fascial restrictions. Release in the soft tissues initiates changes mediated by the nervous system. This may occur even in those regions possibly most readily identified as tensegrity structures, such as the feet.


Other Methods of Structural Release


Within the world of structural bodywork there may be no techniques that consider the muscles as likely key players in any of the body’s structural restrictedness. Not only do the muscles move the body, they may also drive structural dysfunction. The degree of interaction of muscle and fascia must be complex, but fascia is likely mostly reactive.


Other release systems have been advanced to address various regional and overall body issues. Craniosacral therapy, derived from cranial osteopathy,7 addresses the craniosacral system, which is controlled by cyclic production of cerebrospinal fluid by the various choroid tissues. Another methodology, biodynamic craniosacral therapy, includes the emotions as causative of bodily restrictedness.8 A closely related method, biodynamic bodywork, references “the motive Force of life” as a prime mover in bodily events.9 Then there is the visceral system, and the visceral release methods developed by Jean-Pierre Barral, D.O., in which each organ apparently contributes its own inherent motion to structural wellbeing. When there is restriction associated with an organ, it causes compensational movement throughout the body.10 And there is an apparently new SI method using Inherent Motion,11 perceived as rhythms within the body’s bones, fascias, and ligaments.


There is also Ortho-Bionomy®, which the author encountered after the publication of the book Ortho-Bionomy12 in 1997. Dr. Lawrence H. Jones, D.O., developer of Strain Counterstrain (release by positioning)13 influenced the founder of Ortho-Bionomy, Arthur L. Pauls, D.O. In Ortho-Bionomy level four, which deals with physical restriction and its manual release, there is awareness that the muscles are key players in bodily structural events. Ortho-Bionomy level four mostly uses one of many possible techniques for strain release, and focuses on the muscles. There is some use of positional release and other related osteopathic techniques.


Another major method of release is known as neuromuscular therapy. It focuses on the nervous system and the musculoskeletal system and uses trigger point massage and stretching and gait retraining to effect change in the body structure.14 Finally, although not exhaustively, there is myofascial release. According to one source, it uses gentle sustained pressure and stretch to coax myofascial restrictions to release.15 Another source claims there is apparently involvement of the stretch receptors and Golgi tendon organs as causative of dysfunction and useful for release.16 The John Barnes website claims that the release is effected entirely within the fascia itself. There is reference to piezoelectric effects as well as viscoelastic qualities of connective tissue.17


This is not an exhaustive survey, but a sampling of thinking on soft-tissue release. Many ideas are advanced concerning the release mechanism. They do not all agree. None seem to be tested. They are not always specific. All techniques probably have some effectiveness.


A Deeper Look at Strain and Counterstrain


Jones developed the Strain and Counterstrain technique for releasing bony restrictions18 by “passively putting the joint into its position of greatest comfort.” He writes, “Relieving spinal or other joint pain by passively putting the joint [this author’s emphasis] into its position of greatest comfort . . . relieving pain by reduction and arrest of the continuing inappropriate proprioceptor activity. This is accomplished by markedly shortening the muscle that contains the malfunctioning muscle spindle by applying mild strain to its antagonists.” Jones goes on to term the phenomenon of joint pain as primarily “of the nature of joint dysfunction.”19 But if the muscles are the cause of this dysfunction why not call it muscular dysfunction primarily?


If the causative mechanism of such joint dysfunction lies in a “malfunctioning muscle spindle” then it might be instructive to refocus one’s attention to the spindles and the muscles in which they reside. Because spindles are the sensory organs of skeletal muscles, it is appropriate to consider their effect upon the muscles primarily, rather than the joints, which are well-endowed with their own receptors. Additionally, Jones fails to identify the nature of the malfunction of the spindle, to which he refers.


Proposing a Mechanism of Bodily Damage


A problem with many bodywork techniques lies in their failure to propose scientifically based and testable hypotheses as to the physiological causes of the problems we address in our interventions. (The author limits himself to the biomechanical causes of disorder. Emotional issues are not the subject of this inquiry.) Once the cause of the physical restriction is determined, we are freed to creatively seek and find interventions that work by normalizing the mechanisms involved, and thereby to improve structure.


In 1982 the author became a Certified Rolfer. That year, the author also took a four-day class in craniosacral therapy taught by John Upledger, D.O., whose book contains a brief outline of the technique of Strain and Counterstrain in Appendix E, “Spontaneous Release by Positioning.”20 The author also studied Strain and Counterstrain and purchased Jones’s book, Strain and Counterstrain21 for a more comprehensive discussion of the concept. The author would like to propose a mechanism for Jones’s strain, which I maintain is responsible for structural restriction and its accompanying physical compromise, including bony misalignment. This concept occurred to the author sometime between 1987 and 1989, and I have played with it ever since, and developed a number of ways to work with it to effect tissue release and to improve structure and function.


Jones refers hypothetically to the “malfunctioning muscle spindle.” He is speaking collectively – it is not typically a single spindle. However, the spindles may not be malfunctioning, but rather simply functioning normally under the conditions in which they find themselves, but producing an abnormal result. Normal spindle activity leads to the spinal reflexive action of motor-unit contraction. There are two major classes of receptor cells within a spindle: one responds to prolonged stretch and the other to temporary stretch. Both may be involved in the strain event, responding to the stretch events they encounter. When a spindle is stretched, it is activated to send action potentials to the spine. The potentials activate spinal motor neurons to send action potentials to the motor unit(s), which apparently form a functioning entity with at least that one spindle within the muscle.


Ordinarily, once the motor unit’s activity counters the stretch, the spindle ceases to send out action potentials and the motor unit then decreases or ceases its contraction. What if the spindle continues to fire action potentials under a continuing load? Presumably the associated motor unit(s) will continue to contract, leading to a heightened state of local tension for as long as the spindle is active. If an entire fascicle of a muscle is activated this way, it can remain palpably and often painfully contracted. Entire muscles can also be affected. Continuous firing of muscle spindles can be a response to a continuous stretch placed upon them, mediated by the spindle cells that respond to continuous stretch.


Tension within the soft tissues themselves might provide a tissue stretch sufficient to generate strain, either by contraction of other muscles, or shortened connective tissue. Tension within one muscle can affect the state of tension of another by mechanical transmission of that tension through the soft tissues. An epimysium distorted by a nearby scar might lead to abnormal force transmission to other muscles, bypassing the tendons. Connective-tissue scarring and shortening can also act at many different angles in the tissue depending on its location and fiber direction, therefore putting a skewed stretch upon more than a single muscle.


In effect, a stretch may be placed upon some spindles within a muscle by whatever means – soft-tissue distortion caused by prolonged sitting or holding any position for too long, too tight clothing, repetitive motion, new or old injury, chronic inflammation or swelling, prolonged pain, or even familiar ways of holding and using the body. The contraction these spindles cause in their related muscle fibers could then, based upon distortion of the shape and direction of those portions of that muscle, transmit stretch to another muscle, leading to inappropriate contraction of those portions of the second muscle. The second muscle’s contracting units could in turn stretch the first muscle in that same portion that is affecting the second muscle, leading to the continued firing of the contracting motor units in each muscle. The system would in effect be locked into a self-sustaining lesion. This condition might ramify and spread throughout the body, in both characteristic and unique patterns – characteristic because of the common shape of our bodies, unique because of our unique individual history.


A highly simplified picture can be drawn/ imagined of two sets of spindle and associated muscle fibers. The firing of the motor fibers could send a stretch to the spindle associated with the other motor unit. Contractions of those motor fibers could in turn stretch the first spindle leading to a locked-in, self-sustaining tensional unit. With the present state of lab technology this concept could be examined. This description helps elucidate Jones’s statement, “This [relieving spinal or other joint pain] is accomplished by markedly shortening the muscle that contains the malfunctioning muscle spindle by applying mild strain to its antagonists.”


In the author’s experience, the antagonist may be but one of the muscles involved in generating strain. In fact, the involvement of more than one effector may lead to the situation we have likely all encountered: a client will complain of a number of places in the body that hurt sequentially, first here, then there, and back again periodically, continually recurring over time. This recurrence may relate to what Tom Myers was referring to by his railway metaphor for which his book Anatomy Trains is named.


Going further, this recurring pattern of symptoms may indicate that the totality of damage or restrictions in the body forms a highly stable unit. The longer the damage resides in the body, the more complex it becomes by causing distorted, and hence self-damaging, movement. The stability is reinforced by the addition of new injury and the linking of separate damaged regions with individual potential for causing more strain.


Patterns of strain affect cranial motion and possibly that of the viscera. (The author has not yet learned visceral work, so this interaction of visceral and somatic events remains, for me, conjectural.) The key to releasing this type of restriction lies in a variety of related directional and positional release techniques that are suggested by the concept itself, and that go beyond that which was employed by Jones and by Orthobionomy level four. One advantage of this approach is that it has made some of the Rolfing methodology more sensible to the author, and it has helped to answer questions the author had not been able to resolve through pursuing the study and practice of Rolfing SI. However, it is not necessarily useful to try to follow the Rolfing ‘Recipe,’ or any other known sequence to improve the structure. The specific strain system in an individual itself determines how a practitioner best interacts with it.


The strain ‘system’ itself appears to be involved in, if not causative of, joint dysfunction, and so using the techniques of strain release, it is possible to allow bones to realign. This realignment needs to be accompanied by further soft-tissue release or it may not be sufficient. The strain concept is not to be confused with actual tissue damage, including tears, sprains, and breaks. It may be that if a painful region is not relieved by strain-releasing methods, the cause of the pain requires further, medical, investigation. But any injury will also cause strain secondarily.


Fixing the strain system takes time and patience. Available techniques to do so vary in their effectiveness. The practitioner proceeds by continually evaluating changes in structure brought about by each release. Strain release may generally be structured in sixty- to ninety-minute segments. It may also be more fruitful to do sessions closer together than once a week, especially if the sessions are short.


Most if not all of the techniques referenced here fail to advance a scientifically testable mechanism for release of soft-tissue restrictions. The spindle hypothesis is testable. It has the merit of being clear and simple. (It could also be wrong.) From it the author has developed a release methodology that alters structure for the better, and decreases strain-related pain. With it one is able to predict events that will occur resultant to specific releases sought. Not every aspect of the release process is yet clearly understood, but most likely they are all physiologically based.


The author has written this article hoping to spur further scientific investigation and to give the practice of SI another way of thinking about structural release and another powerful release tool. This method focuses upon palpable, visible, present physiological events. There is no reference to extraneous energy fields or phenomena. It improves understanding of some events and enables prediction of others. In this age of scientific progress, the proposed concept is open to scientific investigation, yet it is not reductionistic. It ‘fits’ into and extends the medical/bodywork paradigm. This fitting in might even give our profession more respect in the scientific community, which could produce unforeseen positive results. We can grow and perfect our work through trial and discovery, and we owe it to our clients to give them top-quality work – they deserve the best.




  1. According to Wikipedia, “Tensegrity or tensional integrity is a type of structure with an integrity based on a balance between tension and compression components. In a tensegrity structure the compressive members are connected to each other by tensile members.” The concept has applications in biology. “Biological structures such as muscles and bones, or rigid and elastic cell membranes, are made strong by the unison of tensioned and compressed parts. The muscularskeletal system is a synergy of muscle and bone. The muscles and connective tissues provide continuous pull and the bones discontinuous push.” This author does not agree that the muscles provide continuous pull, nor the bones discontinuous push. Muscular tension varies continuously when awake, and is lessened considerably when asleep and mostly when unconscious. The bones except for the hyoid form a continuous network via the joints.


  1. From www.childrenshospital.org/ research/ingber/: “The Ingber laboratory is interested in the general mechanism of cell and developmental regulation: how cells respond to signals and coordinate their behaviors to produce tissues with specialized form and function. The specific focus is on control of angiogenesis and vascular development. Our approach has been driven by our hypothesis that the process of tissue construction may be regulated mechanically. We introduced the concept that living cells stabilize their internal cytoskeleton, and control their shape and mechanics, using an architectural system first described by Buckminster Fuller, known as “tensegrity.” To approach questions relating to how mechanical distortion of the cell and cytoskeleton influence intracellular biochemistry and pattern formation, we have combined the use of techniques from various fields, including molecular cell biology, mechanical engineering, physics, chemistry, and computer science. This work has led to the identification of mechanical forces and the cytoskeleton as critical cell and developmental regulators, and the discovery that transmembrane integrin receptors which anchor cells to extracellular matrix also mediate mechanotransduction. The process by mechanical signals are converted into an intracellular biochemical response. Our lab also has shown that extracellular matrix and cell shape distortion play central roles in control of angiogenesis that is required for tumor growth and expansion, and has developed numerous novel microtechnologies, nanotechnologies, magnetic control systems and computational models in the course of pursuing these studies. Their potential applications are currently being explored in areas ranging from ultrasensitive clinical diagnostics to nanoscale medical devices, engineered tissues, and biologically-inspired materials for tissue repair and reconstruction.”


  1. See http://sqig.math.ist.utl.pt/lqcil/ quebs09/home/, also http://quebs2010.files. wordpress.com/2010/02/0abstract-title1. pdf.


  1. See www.rwgrayprojects.com/rbfnotes/ fpapers/tensegrity/tenseg01.html. However, a bit later in his article we find this: “Local stiffeners of skin suitable to preferred activities, at any structural focus, can be had by increasing the inward-outward angular strut depths and the local surface frequency patterning as well as by multilayerings of surface truss frequency – thus thickening the truss depth without weight penalties. Here we have nature’s own trick of local stiffening as accomplished by the higher frequency ‘closest packing’ pattern of isotropically moduled, local cartilages and even higher frequency local bone structuring, as ratioed to the frequency of tissue cells of animal flesh.” Got that? It is difficult to make sense of many of Fuller’s statements, which may account for the confusion.


  1. See <a href=’http://www.scienceofrunning.com/2010/02/ new-studies-on-footstrike-do-faster.html.’ target=’_blank’>http://www.scienceofrunning.com/2010/02/ new-studies-on-footstrike-do-faster.html</a>


  1. See . <a href=’http://www.tensegriteit.nl/e-definities.html.’ target=’_blank’>http://www.tensegriteit.nl/e-definities.html</a>


  1. See .<a href=’http://www.www.upledger.com/content. asp?id=26′ target=’_blank’>http://www.upledger.com/content. asp?id=26</a>


  1. See www.biodynamiccranialsacral.com.


  1. See www.biodynamicbodywork.com/ faq/index.


  1. See www.barralinstitute.com/about/ vm.php


  1. See http://explorationsinwholeness. com/. “Inherent Motion – Using the body’s own subtle motion to enhance the goals of Structural Integration.”


  1. Kain, Kathy L., Ortho-Bionomy: A Practical Manual. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997.


  1. Jones, Lawrence Hugh, Strain and Counterstrain. American Academy of Osteopathy, 1981, pg. 11.


  1. See http://pronmt.com/What Is Neuromuscular Therapy.


  1. See www.energyworksmfr.com/ ?110010.


  1. See http://lsabin.wordpress.com/2007/02/04/self-myofascial-release/.


  1. See www.myofascialrelease.com/fascia_ massage/public/whatis_myofascial_release. asp.


  1. Jones, op. cit.


  1. Ibid.


  1. Upledger, John and Jon Vredevoogd, Craniosacral Therapy. Seattle: Eastland Press, 1983. Appendix E, pp. 300-309.


  1. Jones, op. cit.


  1. In the text of this article, I only refer to the tensional effect of activated muscle spindles. However since continuously activated sensory receptors in general cease to provide input after a time, it is possible that this phenomenon may explain why some groups of muscles when put on continuous stretch, as with the psoas muscle on the side away from the rotation of the vertebrae, elongate rather than shorten, as if not being activated by the stretch placed upon it. The contrast of muscle elongation and muscle shortening may have important implications for structural work.


  1. Jones, op. cit.


  1. Myers, Tom, Anatomy Trains. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingston Elsevier Science, 2002.

Structural Dysfunction: Strain and Release[:]

To have full access to the content of this article you need to be registered on the site. Sign up or Register. 

Log In